The most astonishing thing about the farcical and disgraceful–but extremely dangerous–impeachment proceedings in Washington is that they are happening at all. The country is at peace. (Even the war that was called "cold" is over.) Prosperity reigns. Most Americans think the country is on what the poll-takers call "the right track." A seemingly contented public has lost interest in politics, and only 36 percent of the eligible voters made it to the polls in the Congressional elections in November. Some writers are even suggesting that this indifference is right and proper. James Glassman of the Washington Post, for example, has suggested that the politicians and news media take politics too seriously, whereas a sagacious public has wisely turned away to more important things–namely, "families and friends…work and finances…religion, art and culture." How, in this atmosphere, can an impeachment trial–the most extreme remedy provided in the Constitution–be taking place? Why, when the country is at peace, is there war in the capital?
Faced with great events, we are inclined to look for great causes. Other impeachment proceedings in American history have satisfied this requirement. They have been expressions of deep historical conflicts. In the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the issue was the treatment of the South and of its newly liberated black slaves in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the failure to remove him from office heralded the failure for another century to secure their rights. In the impeachment of Richard Nixon, the issue was the Constitution itself, menaced by a presidency grown over-powerful during thirty years of unremitting global struggle with the Soviet Union. What, though, are the historical stakes–if any–in the current impeachment? What is its historical context? What forces have produced the attempt?
I suggest two. One is puritanism. The other is what the writer Niccolo Tucci has called impuritanism. In the long run, these two strange bedfellows cannot cohabit, but in the short run they have combined in a paradoxical unholy alliance to bring us the crisis that so few Americans want.
The puritanism is, of course, the puritanism of the "cultural conservatives," many of them fundamentalist Christians, who now control the Republican Party. We know from history that war and economic catastrophe can drive people to desperation. Is it possible that peace and abundance can do the same? It turns out that they can–at least in the case of a significant minority. As they see it, good times may produce a moral laxity that is as dangerous to society as war and economic depression. The degree of alarm in these quarters can scarcely be overestimated. I first awakened to this mood when I happened to hear a sermon by a visiting preacher at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. At a climactic moment, he shouted, "There is a sewer backed up in your living room–and it is television!" We find the same tone of horror and alarm in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, by Robert Bork, the rejected right-wing Supreme Court nominee. He sees "a world disintegrating" under the pressure of the "rough beast of decadence" and soon to be "subjected to a brutal force." For "an enemy within"–namely "modern liberalism"–has almost completed its destruction of "Western civilization." Underlying this liberalism, he thinks, was postwar "affluence," which led to "hedonism." "Totalitarian" modern feminism, radical racial egalitarianism, the brutalization of popular culture, a watering down of religious authority and acceptance of abortion have combined, he believes, under modern liberalism's banner to bring on "the moral chaos that is the end of radical individualism and the tyranny that is the goal of radical egalitarianism"–in short, "a new Dark Ages." Bork ponders whether in the face of this onslaught perhaps the best strategy is merely to preserve "enclaves" of conservative sanity, as some monasteries did in the original Dark Ages; but he concludes instead that what is needed is a "politically sophisticated religious conservatism"–exactly the sort of force we now see in action in the impeachment of Clinton.